Monday, June 8, 2009

What do you call a runner who can't run anymore?

I am a runner. I have taken great pride in making myself into a runner and in allowing myself to call myself a runner. It took years to start running, more years to keep running and at times an entire life time to run a race. I am a runner.

I have taken even greater pride in helping others become runners or rather unleash their inner runner. Helping runners see that they were a runner all along they just had too many rules they created before allowing themself to be labeled with "I am a runner."

So here I sit, now, and wonder what I will become if I can't be a runner. The visit to the orthopedic surgeon is over and their are really no options for me now except to stop running. Degenerative. Arthritis. Cartlidge is gone. No real space in the knee. Just a matter of time before knee replacement. We have no good way to fix this problem with a knee. How old are you? All the things I would tell you do you have done but you are still here. Activity modification. No pounding. No jumping. No running. Elliptical. Bike. Swimming. Soft trails. Running will make it worse. If you can't take it - cortisone shots - but it doesn't fix it. There is no fix for it. You are running right into a knee replacement.

I am 38.

Now what?

It took all my will not to cry in front of this doctor - a stranger. He was helpful, but I knew he wasn't a runner. He wouldn't fully understand. Especially since I am not an elite athlete or a local superstar. I am a mom runner. A weekend athlete. But I am a runner.

My PT came with me today - bringing a summary of her treatment as well as herself. No other options she said. Just keep working on balance and strength to keep the symptoms away. Won't get better, will get worse. No other options.

So I come home tonight to think it through. I go to change my clothes and realize that every "after work" outfit is a running shirt from some race. All my shorts have been purchased with a run or after a run in mind. I go slip on shoes and stare at my closet of running shoes, all purchased with a specific run or season in mind. I look on the shelf of the hallway and see my GU, my spibelt, my winter running wear and my water bottles just waiting for another run.

Everything in my life, every habit has been built around the fact that I am a Runner. Maybe this is how you know you are a runner when you can't separate one part of your life from your running life. All of the sudden you wake up and realize that running has become intertwined with all other parts of your life. And it feels right. It feels so right you don't realize what has happened. It feels so right that you can't figure out how you would possible untangle running from your daily habits.

I grab the mail and pull out my medal from Drake Relays - it has finally arrived. I walk it over to my medal wall and stare at an entire wall devoted to my running medals and memories. Pictures framed to capture a moment. Running books stacked by my reading chair waiting for another read. Runners World dog eared for an article I wanted to read again. My bottle of Powerade Zero left over from my last long run flop in the chair.

The thought of what I would read in the place of all that material stops me cold. What next? What do I care about as much as running? I grab a cookie from my secret stash. My brain reflectively shoots a message back to not worry - we can work off these cookies in the next run. But wait. A deep breath. There may be no more post cookie binge runs to counteract the uncontrolled cookie feasts. Oh god. No more celebratory long run indulgences.

Or worse. No more long runs. Oh the feeling of the long, slow run. The feeling of happy exhaustion. Of joy in accomplishment. Of stronger muscles. Of feeling like and knowing that you are one of a small community who are able to do what you just did - and like it. The silent satisfaction the rest of the day or weekend of knowing "I did it". The confidence to know that you can push past discomfort or pain or mental weakness and keep going just to show you can do it.

Gone is the time reserved for you. To recharge. To detatch. To get lost. To find yourself. To learn something about yourself you never knew. Or sometimes to rememeber something about you that you had forgotten. To make lists. To get organized. To stop thinking. To give time to think. To praise God. To talk to yourself. It's the reward of being a runner. Time. Precious time for to make a mental -physical connection that seems to make the rest of the time not running so much more enjoyable.

So, now what?

Do I stop? Four doctors with the same four messages. The fourth doctor the most informed of all. The fourth doctor with the painstaking tour of my X-Rays to show that he isn't making it up. The pain and symptoms aren't in my head or imagined or overblown. It is the lack of black space on the X-ray which tells a pretty loud story. It yells back - yeah, it's real.

My brain keeps trying to shift to injury mode. Chanting, just a few weeks off and then good as new. So I keep showing it the X-ray and whispering back - this isn't an injury - this is for good. And it just gets worse. Resting, icing, ibrofen will not fix this. Not running won't fix it. Running will make it worse. 38, 39, 40, 45, 48 is too young for a knee replacement.

But my brain is rationalizing now. Squinting at the X-ray. Thinking...he could just be trying to scare you - does a few milimeters make a difference? Really. Come on - he's just a conservative. But a walk, a jog and I am reminded that it isn't just a picture - it is also pain. It is locking, it is grinding, it is the swelling. He didn't make it up. He just took a picture of it. And he was smart enough to send it home with me for a moment just like this.

So it's real. So it's not going away. So it's something I need to manage. So the best option isn't running. (for how long....) (do I start now...). I am bargaining with my knee. What if I run all my favorites this year and see how it goes? (Injury mindset talking....) What is I get it out of my system and then stop at the end of this year? (One last hoorah talking...) What if I just run until I can't do it anymore - how made could a knee replacement be? (emotion talking)

What I can't seem to ask myself is, "how can I stop running?" I am not ready to be rational and logical and an adult. I am too sad. I don't want to stop running.

Frayed Laces mantra pops into my head, "someday you won't be able to run, today isn't that day." Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit- TODAY is that day. It's here. Now what. No running blog tells you what to do when it becomes THAT day. There are posts about pre race, post run, taper madness, pregnancy running, EVERYTHING but this. No runner wants to talk about what happens on the day you can't run anymore. Ever. I remember Nancy going through this moment and talking about it on one of my favorite podcasts. The participants starting laughing because the way runners were talking it was like Nancy had died. We could laugh about it as a group, but the reality is - we all knew that losing the runner in you was like something had died.

This is a bad moment. And during bad moments, I run. And because I already have on my running clothes and running shoes - I could run. But I don't, I walk. I walk and cry. I walk and think. I walk and try to put together the answer to the question, "what do you call a runner when a runner can't run anymore?"

No matter how I try to answer, none of my responses are acceptable. I am a walker. I am a biker. I am a big, fat slob. I am a ...... I am a ex-runner. I used to run. I once ran. I did a few races. Oh my god. Those are not the way I want to be.

I stop and remember that this is small in a world full of bigger things. This isn't cancer. This isn't a heart attack. This isn't a brain injury. My kids are healthy. My husband is happy. I have a job. I am tremendously fortunate to be who I am doing what I do. I just need to find a way not to say....I am a runner.

So what to do? What's next? Do I keep running? Does running become the exception? Is running my cross training days? Will I wake up in a few weeks and find that running has untangled itself across my life and I won't remember the wonderful feeling of being a runner?

That I can't imagine because I am a runner. I will always be a runner. I won't stop running. I just can't. Not yet. Not now.


  1. Wow, Amy I am very sorry! I can only imagine the roller coaster of emotions that must be going on right now. Can you see another doctor who by chance is a runner? No matter what you will always be a runner - your stinking knee can't take away a piece of what makes you - you.

  2. Oh man. I just want to cry with you. Your post brought back some of the same emotions I had when I was severely injured and couldn't run for about a year. I didn't feel like anyone understood and it hurt me to see other people running, yet at the same time I knew that it could be so much worse-cancer, things that you mentioned. Yet it felt as if a part of me was dying. But like you said, that was just an injury and this sounds like it's permanent. Maybe you don't want to hear this now, but have a friend who trained exclusively for a full marathon in the pool doing pool running. Have you tried that? Good luck and I hope you're able to find a way to have running be a part of your life. You will always be a runner.